This week’s parsha, or weekly Torah portion, is Chukat, which can be roughly translated as “decree.” In this parsha, the Israelites are still wandering through the desert when the sister of Aaron and Moses, Miriam, suddenly passes away. In the waterless desert in the aftermath of Miriam’s death, the Israelites struggle to survive, and G-d instructs Moses to talk to a stone and demand that it provide water for his people. Yet Moses strikes the stone instead of speaking to it, as G-d had commanded, and G-d becomes angry. G-d declares that Moses and Aaron will not be able to enter the Promised Land. Soon after, Aaron dies, and then the Israelites fight in several different battles, win each time, and conquer the lands of their enemies.
One of the first questions that came to mind as I read this parsha was why Moses chose to strike the stone. According to one commentator, he was upset with the Israelites for endlessly complaining about their thirst. Yet, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, it is unsurprising that Moses may have thought that this was what G-d wanted him to do because in an earlier instance, years before, G-d had commanded Moses to strike the rock. Yet, “What he failed to understand was that time had changed…The people he confronted the first time were those who had spent much of their lives as slaves in Egypt. Those he now faced were born in freedom in the wilderness…You strike a slave, but speak to a free person…A figure capable of leading slaves to freedom is not the same as one able to lead free human beings from a nomadic existence in the wilderness to the conquest and settlement of a land. These are different challenges, and they need different types of leadership.”
So let’s say Moses assumed that G-d was asking the same of him as he had nearly 40 years before. As I considered this possibility, I found myself reflecting on how easy it has been for me to develop, as Moses did, a habitual pattern of perceiving and interacting with another person or people; the way I engage with that person becomes a blunt tool, as if I am on autopilot. For example, as my younger siblings have grown and changed, I have at times still treated them as I did when they were younger. In each of these moments, I benefit from the wisdom of one of my favorite quotations: as the saying goes, “the only constant in life is change.”
Yet it is not only with my brothers that I can benefit from tuning in to what a specific moment is asking of me; in other words, talking to the rock rather than striking it. It is also a matter of waking up to the changes occurring inside my own head and heart. Recently, exasperated after one too many failed dating attempts, I realized it was time to nonjudgmentally investigate who I was choosing to go out on dates with; did these people actually match what I was looking for? Wait, what was I looking for? And the investigation was off and running. After shining light on a habitual pattern, I began the long overdue process of reflecting on what my heart knows.
This is what contemplative practice encourages us to do: nonjudgmentally recognize what is arising, especially when it comes to habitual thought and feeling patterns, and awaken to the needs of each unique moment. This week, my kavanah, or intention, is for us to ask ourselves; what areas of our lives — relationships, work, family – could benefit from talking rather than striking the rock, to waking up and out of habitual patterns to truly arrive at this moment in all its glory?